De Stijl 1924–8

Theo van Doesburg Composition in Half-Tones 1928

Theo van Doesburg
Composition in Half-Tones 1928
Kunstmuseum Basel

In 1924, just as he was publishing a manifesto in De Stijl claiming that ‘painting which is separate from architectural construction (that is, easel painting) has no raison d’être,’ Van Doesburg began actively painting again. Over the next couple of years he produced a series of ‘Counter-compositions’ intended to move even further beyond the non-figurative compositional practice he had developed before leaving the Netherlands for Germany in 1921.

Since settling in Paris in 1923, van Doesburg had spent a lot of time with Mondrian, and began to question the basic tenets of his colleague’s concept of Neo-Plasticism. His new approach, Elementarism, was intended to dispense with what he called classical-abstract composition, suggesting that the arrangement of lines and colours according to standards of taste and judgment was simply the refinement of a traditional concept of art rather than a new one.

Theo van Doesburg Contra-Composition XV 1925

Theo van Doesburg
Contra-Composition XV 1925
Museum Sztuki, Lodz

A number of ‘Counter-compositions’ with dramatic diagonals were shown at the exhibition L’Art d’aujourd’hui in Paris in 1925. Not only were they visually more dramatic than before, they also seemed to reject associations with nature and the human body inherent in horizontal and vertical compositions. Given this challenge to his practice, Mondrian felt unable to continue to contribute to De Stijl. Meanwhile van Doesburg had recruited other artists, such as César Domela and Freidrich Vordemberghe-Gildewart in Germany, whose approach was closer to Constructivism, treating the artwork as an object hovering between painting, sculpture and architecture.

While the diagonal has become the most celebrated feature of van Doesburg’s later paintings, they have other notable qualities. In order to eliminate ‘aesthetic speculation’, he based all of his compositions on grids which were similarly anti-natural. Where early De Stijl theory considered line and plane as separate elements to be balanced, their relationship became much more varied and often less determinate. In some compositions line dominates completely, in others planes of colour. Colours are not modulated but frequently abutted to create dissonant effects. If the initial De Stijl approach had been to identify the basic elements of painting and present them harmoniously on a flat surface, van Doesburg’s ‘counter’ practice produced visual uncertainty, disruption and dynamic spatial effects. In retrospect nearly all of these features can be identified in van Doesburg’s earlier paintings (and also in his interest in other media such as music, film and graphic design) but it was only now that he isolated their potential in painting to jolt the viewer out of a state of equilibrium and ‘provide a new dimension to our imagination.’

Theo van Doesburg Composition 1924

Theo van Doesburg
Composition 1924
Kunstmuseum Basel